Upon arriving in London on Thursday July 7th, just hours after the explosion of four bombs on the city’s subway trains and commuter buses, I am not sure whether my attention is held rapt more by the anomalous signs of recent chaos or by the signs of normality that still characterize the city.
In France, the Eurostar train service attempted to convince its passengers not to go to London, calling the city paralyzed. This information turns out to be false: although indeed the subway system is completely closed for the first time in its venerable 142-year history, by the afternoon buses are running and cabs are available. The city is as crowded as always, and, notably, its skyline has of course remained the same—as much as the Underground, which is used by close to three million Londoners daily, may be a symbol of the city, these attacks will not remain as legible in the city’s architecture nearly four years later as the attacks on New York in September 2001 still are today.
Sitting alone on the top floor of a double-decker bus, it occurs to me that the reason for my solitude may be the fact that the bomb, which exploded on a double-decker bus, destroyed mainly its upper floor. But no, soon the floor fills with Londoners who will not let themselves be perturbed. Injunctions to continue as if nothing happened are indeed the most frequently heard refrain in the days after the attack—“we shall not let ourselves be affected,” the Brits say, “to give in would afford a victory to the terrorists.”
Some signs of normality are particularly vivid: on Thursday night, the night of the attacks, a number of homeless people make their beds at Marble Arch, in the still accessible passageway to the Underground. They do not have the luxury of deciding to move to a safer part of the world, unlike the tourists who returned home after the attacks. On Friday, retail shopping at the many department stores on Oxford Street proceeds unfettered. Despite their adverse effect on the stock market, the attacks have not stopped most shoppers’ determination to take advantage of sale prices.
Pondering this resilience of the capitalist system, I encounter, inside the Selfridges department store, an Arab-themed café offering its customers a “Bedouin” experience: on colorful cushions in a tent-like structure, young women surrounded by their shopping bags smoke hookah pipes. At this most superficial of levels, the commercial complex is able to combine Islamic and Western elements without any of the problems which crease the brows of the country’s politicians. Appearing on the BBC, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and Jack Straw, the foreign minister, anxiously stress that the attacks are condemned by the many ordinary, decent Muslims who inhabit the country. In the same vein, the London newspapers profile a young Muslim Londoner who is believed to have died in the attacks—she is designated a “real East Ender” and “British to the core” as well as a Muslim “occasionally known to pray.” The eagerness with which everyone is urgently underscoring the innocence and decency of most Muslims seems to indicate an underlying tension: some part of the population must need to be administered this information. The politicians fear a backlash.
On Saturday, on my way to the wedding that brought me to London, I drive by Edgware Road, where one of the attacks took place. The normally busy street is cordoned off and teeming with policemen. The scene is a jarring reminder of the innocent deaths which the huge metropolis has so easily absorbed. As the process of identifying the dead begins, it remains to be seen what political consequences the attack will have in Great Britain and Europe. The bombs exploded at a moment of great triumph for Britain: the last months saw Blair’s sweeping reelection, a solidly performing British economy, the beginning of the British presidency of the European Union, the G8 summit at Gleneagles, and finally, the announcement of the 2012 London Olympics. Commentators wonder whether the attacks will afford the mandate for invasive legislation parallel to the U.S. Patriot Act, or perhaps instead, whether they will warrant the development of a supranational police and security force shared by the countries of the European Union.
But as politics and commerce draw their own conclusions from the attack, I am most taken by the smiles of the multiethnic brides at the Marylebone Register Office. Different groups of celebrants cross paths on the front steps of the building, and what seems most relevant today is that here, families from a great diversity of national and religious backgrounds unite to throw confetti and celebrate their lives—lives which continue even after one of the darkest shocks London has recently known.
Alexander Bevilacqua ’07, a history concentrator in Leverett House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. He is doing academic research in Paris and Berlin, but wedding bells drew him to England last week.